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The Censorship Election

How the Broadcast Networks Buried the Bad News That Threatened Barack Obama's Quest for a Second Term

After the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the Obama administration publicly insisted the attack was, in U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s infamous formulation, “a spontaneous reaction” to an anti-Muslim video released ten weeks earlier on YouTube.

White House spokesman Jay Carney pushed this argument in a September 14 briefing, blaming the Benghazi attack on “protests... in reaction to a video that had spread to the region.” Then, appearing on all five Sunday talk shows on September 16, five days after the attack, Ambassador Rice amplified the administration’s theory. “What happened this week in Cairo, in Benghazi, in many other parts of the region was a result — a direct result — of a heinous and offensive video,” she announced on ABC’s This Week.

On NBC’s Meet the Press, she repeated: “This is a response to a very offensive video. It’s not the first time that American facilities have come under attack in the Middle East, going back to 1982 in Beirut, going back to the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, or even the attack on our embassy in 2008 in Yemen.”

Subsequent investigation showed U.S. officials never believed this to be true. According to a December 30 report by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: “Senior officials from the IC [intelligence community], the Department of State, and the FBI who participated in briefings and interviews with the Committee said they believed the attack on the mission facility in Benghazi to be a terrorist attack immediately or almost immediately after it occurred. The ODNI’s [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] spokesman also has publicly said, ‘The intelligence community assessed from the very beginning that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.’” [emphasis added]

According to the official review of the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, there was never a demonstration against the YouTube video that night in Benghazi: “The Board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity.”

If the truth had mattered, Rice or one of her assistants simply could have checked with deputy chief of mission Gregory Hicks, who after Stevens’ death was the highest-ranking American official in Libya. Appearing May 8 at a congressional hearing, Hicks admitted Rice had not reached out to him prior to her Sunday show appearances.

When asked how he reacted when he heard the U.N. Ambassador blame the video for the attack, Hicks bluntly replied: “I was stunned.  My jaw dropped, and I was embarrassed.”

Even the networks, in the first hours after the Ambassador’s killing, characterized the attack as likely the work of terrorists, not a demonstration that spun out of control. “There is developing evidence tonight that suggests that the killing of four American diplomats in Libya may have been a terrorist attack, not the mob violence that was first suspected,” anchor Scott Pelley announced on the September 12 CBS Evening News, four days before Rice’s round of Sunday interviews.

Yet on September 17, the day after Rice spoke, none of the Big Three “fact-checked” her already-dubious claim of how the attack transpired. Indeed, only the NBC Nightly News revisited her statements — but to contradict Rice’s suggestion that (in correspondent Lisa Myer’s wording) “there was a strong security presence at the consulate.”

On the September 19 Evening News, correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, reporting from Benghazi, discovered that claims of an anti-video protest were baseless. “Most people we talked to, including neighbors around the consulate, say that there was absolutely no demonstration,” Palmer reported. “In fact, the attack began when a group of armed men, as many as 100, showed up at the same time at both the compound’s main gates and began firing.”

In a September 20 appearance on the Spanish-language Univison network, the President himself claimed that a “natural protest” over the video had precipitated the attack: “What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests.” That was the same day that his spokesman Jay Carney reversed his earlier spin and flatly declared the assault on the consulate was a “terrorist attack.”

That night, all three networks noted the administration’s change of position, but only NBC’s Andrea Mitchell pointed out that Obama was still using the old talking points. Amplifying the confusion, Mitchell offered viewers no guidance: “U.S. officials say that this could have been a long-planned attack; taking the opportunity of a protest; or no protest at all. They are now investigating all possibilities....”

As evidence mounted that U.S. officials knew at the start that this was a terrorist attack, the networks lost interest in determining how and why Team Obama got the talking points wrong. On September 26, Newsweek/Daily Beast national security reporter Eli Lake cited “U.S. intelligence officials” in determining that “intelligence agencies knew within a day that al Qaeda affiliates were behind the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.”

The network response was slow. ABC waited nearly 40 hours to publicize this news; White House correspondent Jake Tapper confirmed Lake’s story on the September 27 World News. NBC waited another 24 hours, until the Obama administration put out a statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence accepting responsibility for the changing accounts. Fill-in Nightly News anchor Savannah Guthrie led off the Friday night newscast: “Tonight, a rare reversal. Intelligence officials say they originally got it wrong.”

The CBS Evening News never aired a full story on these revelations, but the network mentioned it in passing on two other shows.

Then on October 23, the CBS Evening News exclusively reported e-mails sent by the State Department during the attack, including one from 6:07pm ET on September 11 referring to how the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility — more evidence that the Obama administration knew at the earliest stages that this was a terrorist attack.

The next day, NBC Nightly News provided a bland two-minute report by Andrea Mitchell on the new e-mail evidence. But ABC’s World News limited its coverage that night to a 20-second item dismissing the significance of the e-mails. Instead of quoting the messages themselves, anchor Diane Sawyer focused on Team Obama’s response: “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says those e-mails were not hard evidence, and all the incoming information had to be evaluated.”

It’s one thing for officials to make honest mistakes in the immediate aftermath of an attack such as the one that took place in Benghazi on September 11. But after top administration officials were exposed as spouting a false narrative days after intelligence officials had determined the basic story of what happened during the attacks, professional journalists should have recognized their duty to investigate.

But as longtime ABC News veteran and Fox News anchor Brit Hume observed on the October 28 Fox News Sunday, the so-called mainstream media’s watchdogs were AWOL when it came to the Benghazi scandal: “It has fallen to this news organization, Fox News and a couple others, to do all the heavy lifting on this story. And the mainstream organs of the media that would be after this like a pack of hounds, if this were a Republican president, have been remarkably reticent.”